Cllr Barry Lewis is the Leader of Derbyshire County Council.
Since the first glimmers that Coronavirus might be something we want to take notice of, back in later December 2019, few could have predicted just how much this virus would change the world. One area that will never be the same again is local government; it has been seismic – anyone in any part of the country will not have failed to notice just how quickly councils have swung into action to support communities, reconfigure services, and even provide whole new services in a matter of days.
The Prime Minister has come under fire for not attending the first five COBR meetings that were called to discuss the virus since January. The fact that COBR was called as early as it was, and chaired by key Cabinet Ministers, whist in the full heat of Brexit, was remarkable. I cannot imagine that the PM was not at least fully cognisant of the situation at a time when even health officials said the risk was low.
In Derbyshire, we discussed it at the top level in a Cabinet and Corporate Management meeting on 12th January, where I introduced it as a topic and it was added as a standing agenda item from our next one on 29th January. I’m pretty sure my cabinet and Officer colleagues thought I had a screw loose at the time but one thing I had learned following the moorland fires earlier last year, the Whaley Bridge dam incident in August, the devastating floods of November, and the damaging storms of earlier this year, preparedness becomes second nature. Derbyshire then saw the first case of Covid-19 in the East Midlands in February.
Since then, as cases nationally and locally were ticking upwards, we have been feeling the lockdown as an inevitability. This came as a consequence of talking and thinking at a high level. Our preparations had been ratcheting up ever since and so when we took the leap into this new reality we felt ready, perhaps readier than many. One consequence of the changes we had put in place since 2017 at Derbyshire was transforming procurement, streamlining and centralising these processes. This has meant that our PPE issues haven’t perhaps been as acute as those in other local authority areas. That’s not to say we’re immune from the issues, or haven’t had, or will have, pressure points – it’s just that we’ve been sighted on the issue for longer, and we’ve better able to prepare to ensure we have stocks for our 23 care homes and home carers. It means too that we’re more responsive to opportunities to procure our own stocks alongside those of the Local Resilience Forum (LRF) preparedness efforts.
Government moved in an unprecedented way: pumping more than £330 billion into providing relief, grants, and creating an unprecedented scheme for furloughing staff, and, of course, with government backing, the NHS, this normally cumbersome beast moved at pace in an astonishing way, building new Nightingale Hospitals and radically creating capacity.
Generally, in Derbyshire, by being early to discuss, by taking prudent action and service reform since 2017, to modernise our organisation and services, we knew we could turn on a penny if needed. And boy did we need to. We even started creating our Covid-19 Community Response Unit (CRU) days before government announced we needed to create hubs to deal with vulnerable and shielded residents in our communities. We created a million pound fund to provide relief to residents, businesses and self-employed, and we donated £100,000 to Foundation Derbyshire to ensure Foodbanks in Derbyshire had the resources they needed to meet this crisis. Plus additional resources to Fareshare and direct support to Derbyshire Derbyshire foodbanks totalling another £53,000.
In seven days we created a whole new countywide service, the CRU, which required working with over 280 organisations, including districts, boroughs, CVS organisations and businesses. Procuring warehouse space, redeploying and training countless people, such as librarians, into new roles, dealt with thousands of enquiries, ensured thousands of vulnerable people had access to help, and delivered hundreds of food parcels, prescriptions, other necessities and mobilised to support hundreds of shielded individuals across Derbyshire. In doing so we have safeguarded jobs and businesses whose immediate situation looked precarious by utilising their services in new ways. Unprecedented and rapid partnership working on a scale not seen before.
Hospital discharge is something we’ve done well in Derbyshire for some time now. However, in recent weeks the mobilisation of a large-scale hospital discharge scheme to cope with stepping down Covid-19 cases, by returning patients to community care, has increased capacity massively. Here is something that we must capture post Covid-19, a potential silver bullet.
My thanks to the thousands of people, in all local authorities in Derbyshire, from elected members of any political flavour, to all the dedicated officers and staff, some of whom have worked nearly 24/7 to pull all this together. The skills, resilience and energy they have shown has been amazing. And to all those in the voluntary, community, and independent sector, in many businesses and all those other individuals and volunteers that have come together with us to help residents in this, a bleak hour for our nation, you have my sincerest thanks for being a shining light in that darkness.
Under normal circumstances these processes, usually so entrenched in local government risk averse practice, would have taken weeks or months of planning, thinking about, reporting, thinking some more, a consultation or two, a cabinet paper then an implementation programme, internal auditing and risk assessing before finally being rolled out in some distant timeframe that meant you probably forgot much of what the original purpose of the new service was for. Recently, not only have we proved it can be done quickly but that it can be done well and safely and that we can measure it’s success and benefits readily whilst reassuring government and taxpayers that their money is being well-spent and looked after.
There are other things as well: mileage done by officers and councillors have dropped dramatically, whilst face-to-face meetings of all sizes are routinely conducted by Skype, or Zoom or MS Teams. Proving that we can conduct business using these technologies and not emit countless tons of CO2. We may through this demonstrate we need far fewer buildings to use as offices and streamline council estates dramatically in favour of a virtual Town Hall.
Local government, when we come out of the other side of this, needs to capture this sort of pace and make it more the norm – not the exception. We know we can do it and have a confident ‘can-do’ business-like approach that is familiar in commerce; not one wrapped in overly cautious, bureaucratic, risk-averse practice. If nothing else we should be walking into a brave new world, alongside colleagues in the NHS who have done the same in many ways, where we can deliver fast, highly responsive, value-for-money services at pace and scale. To get over the impacts of this pandemic, to save money, and to revitalise the economy – and to be better able to cope with such shocks in the future we will need to think and behave differently anyway.